Figuring out Blackness

Works, speeches, and writers that have helped me understand what it means to be black in the United States

It was around the year 2010. I was having one of those half-small talk, half-debate conversations where it seems as if the person in front of you is trying to prove something to you, though it’s not exactly clear what or why. My conversation partner, a white male, made a comment that led me to mention my graduate work in African American studies. He cut me off before I could go into the details. He then named the black feminist thinkers whose works he had studied in college. He ended his statement with a dismissive hand swipe through the air and a proud “so I know all about that stuff.”

I told him I was impressed that he knew all about it, because after living my whole life as a black person and spending years studying black history, I was still trying to figure it out.

If America is a house, black studies is the conversation that has made its way into every room, welcome or not. It is forever speaking up, correcting, and observing, constantly questioning and absorbing the realities that make America what it is. Years after my first graduate degree, I continue to find books, speeches, films, songs, and poems by African Americans that make me re-think things I thought I already knew, and that help me see black people and our history in new and unusual ways.

For Black History Month, I am highlighting some works, speeches, and writers that have profoundly impacted my understanding of what it means to be black in the United States.

Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) by Marvin Gaye

“Make me wanna holler/ the way they do my life…” Just about anyone who has spent years on the receiving end of economic, social, and political injustice can relate to the lines in this song – lines that hold special significance for African Americans because of the disproportionate poverty and physical violence our communities face. I holler for the children losing free school lunches because some politicians have decided that their families are “not entitled” to nutritional assistance benefits; for people dying in their 20’s from diabetic ketoacidosis because they cannot afford the insulin they need to stay alive; for people struggling to get clean water in the 21st century in the  richest nation on earth. So much has changed since Marvin Gaye recorded Inner City Blues in 1971 – yet so much has stayed the same.

“Revolutionary Dreams” by Nikki Giovanni

Reading Giovanni as a teenage girl and, later, as a graduate student, helped me find my place in the world. I was drawn to her straightforward language and her humor. She wrote without convolution and pretense; her work made sense to me. Here was a woman who knew her worth and could express herself in verse so fierce it could cut you or so soft it could make your eyes well up. She was talented, she was unapologetic, and she was black as she wanted to be. Through Giovanni I saw that I could have a love affair with verse without losing my vernacular or my voice; I could be a poet and still be me. In her poem “Revolutionary Dreams,” Giovanni asserts that one of the most revolutionary things a black woman can do is just live her life and be herself. It is a message I strive to live by every day.

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

No play has shaped my thinking about the heart of the black family more than this one has. In the character of Beneatha Younger, the young black intellectual whose mother slaps her across the face for saying there is no God, I see all the black folks who are denigrated or silenced within their own communities for daring to reject the organized religion that has sustained so many of our people. To be black and unreligious is not an easy thing; by questioning the unquestionable, you risk being socially marginalized and labeled morally suspect. I can relate to Beneatha’s religious skepticism and to her mother’s need to maintain order in the house. I can relate as well to the pressure cooker atmosphere in the Younger home, crammed to the max with bodies, suppressed dreams, and pain. It is a common feeling in poor black households, I think, where the rat wheel is being fueled by both racism and classism. You can be running so hard that you don’t have time to sit back and really think about the craziness of it all. The most memorable moment in the play for me is the one where Beneatha’s boyfriend, Joseph Asagai, exasperated by her family’s squabbles over the life insurance proceeds from her father’s death, asks the question: “[I]sn’t there something wrong in a house—in a world—where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man?” To be a black family in poverty is to be subject to daily disorientation, to have the sacredness of your mourning be mocked by financial circumstance, to have your very foundation constantly undermined by storms slamming inside and out, coming from every which way. What gets you through is a fierce resilience of mind and a bottomless love. A Raisin in the Sun’s characters embody that.

James Baldwin

Baldwin is more than a writer to me. He is a sociologist and a therapist who uses his intellect like a gravedigger’s shovel, pushing through the deep, dirty crumbles of America’s darkest prejudices, fears, and pain. Although he died in 1987, I like to use the present tense when I write about him, because when I hear James Baldwin’s voice I hear life. I hear an insight into society and humanity that is timeless. He was a person who, in his own words, did not really believe in race or color, yet he understood, with astounding clarity, the implications of that belief and the psychological forces underlying racism.

“That great Western house that I come from is one house, and I am one of the children of that house. Simply, I am the most despised child of that house. And it is because the American people are unable to face the fact that I am flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone, created by them, my blood, my father’s blood is in that soil, they can’t face that. And that is why the streets of Detroit went up in flames.” – James Baldwin, during a 1968 speech on civil rights in London

James Baldwin understood why people like me need art and why we create it. “You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discovered that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky,” he said to Studs Terkel in 1961. “This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important(Baldwin, Standley, and Pratt, 1989, p. 21). I read these words 50 years after he said them, and they silenced my insecurities about being a writer, about whether what I was doing meant anything at all. They are the words I wish I had had when my former general practitioner, after I told her I was a poet, asked “What is your purpose in doing that?” As a black Southern woman writer who has experienced many varieties of aloneness – the aloneness of being human, of being an artist, of being unreligious in the Bible Belt, of being the only native Southerner in the room, of being the only black in an office of white people – I have often retreated inside the space of my own mind, applying a sort of mental Novocain barrier to blunt the pain of the world’s disregard. When life feels like more than I can handle, Baldwin’s words give me the strength to keep going.

I’ve Got The Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle by Charles Payne

This book taught me about the activism of Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Bob Moses and the impact of the Freedom Schools. Payne’s scholarship made me see that the civil rights movement and Black Power were not as distinct from each other as many would have us to believe – that, in fact, there were Black Power activists who came directly out of the civil rights movement. Some of these activists had been members of SNCC, the  Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee whose formation was encouraged by  Baker. In analyzing the work of SNCC, Payne wrote: “[SNCC] pushed the proposition that merely bettering the living conditions of the oppressed was insufficient; that has to be done in conjunction with giving those people a voice in the decisions that shape their lives” (1995, p, 100). Payne helped me understand the depth and complexity of black resistance in the South, and his work has informed a lot of my thinking about race and social justice.

Octavia Butler’s novels

Reading Butler made me realize how hungry I was for stories that explored the nexus of race, sexuality, and aging in progressive, life-affirming ways. In Butler’s world, black female intelligence, confidence, and desirability are the norm, not exceptions to a racist’s rule. The marginalized are the leaders, challenging oppressive ideologies, teaching and saving themselves and each other. Kindred, a novel in which a black woman travels back in time to the U.S. slavery era to ensure the survival of her black great-great-grandmother and a white rapist ancestor, should be on the required reading list of anyone studying U.S. race relations. As I wrote in my post “For Octavia” in 2018, reading Octavia Butler has transformed my thinking about race and about myself as a black woman.

Toni Morrison

The New York Times article “12 of Toni Morrison’s Most Memorable Quotes” contains this famous gem:

“The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.”

As a black person of a certain age, I had felt this truth before, but it took Toni Morrison’s eloquence to bring it to the surface of my conscious mind. To be black in the United States is to spend a good bit of your life pushing back against racist words and ideas. It is a frustrating, infuriating, and exhausting endeavor. Somewhere along the line, you accept that you will never get paid for this part-time job, so you find ways to self-compensate. One of the best gifts I ever gave myself was reading Toni Morrison’s books. That there could be entire novels with nothing but black characters was a revelation to my undergraduate girl mind.  The characters are so remarkable that,  decades later, they are still walking through my mind: the self-possessed, pitch-dark black woman in the brilliant yellow dress (Tar Baby); a fierce Pilate bursting into the church and stopping time (Song of Solomon); little Pecola sitting at a table drinking milk and longing for blue-eyed beauty (The Bluest Eye). Immersed in the hynotizing complexity of Morrison’s narratives, I was comforted again and again by this simple message: black love, black joy, and black pain matter.

I’ve Been to the Mountaintop by Martin Luther King, Jr.

King knew he was a marked man, but he never let that stop him from speaking his truth. When I hear him say “I may not get there with you,” I can almost feel his knowing that he would not get there, that he would not even come close. And then he says, “But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” Part of being black for me has been realizing that I am part of a long-term, multi-generational  struggle. My grandancestors’ education was cut short by field work and racist circumstances. Their kids worked the fields, too, but they got to finish high school and even go to college for a while. Those kids’ kids tended the family garden in the summer, but during the rest of the year they went to school. They got their high school diplomas and their college degrees and secured good-paying jobs. I celebrate this progress and see it continuing in the lives of the young people in our family whose youthful career ambitions are way bolder than mine ever were. But then I think about the similarities between the horrors of King’s day and those of my lifetime – black resisters still being beat down in the street; black people still being falsely accused of crimes and put to death; black people who’ve done nothing wrong still being killed in their homes – and I wonder about the meaning of progress. I wonder if we will ever “get there.” Then I think about Martin again. I hear his voice the night before he was murdered, his confidence, his unshatterable hope. I stop wondering. And I keep going.


12 of Toni Morrison’s most memorable quotes. (2019, August 6). New York Times online. Retrieved from

Baldwin, J., Standley, F., & Pratt, L. (1989). Conversations with James Baldwin (Literary conversations series). Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

“James Baldwin: Speech on Civil Rights.” Directed by Anonymous, produced by Educational Video Group, 1968. Alexander Street,

Payne, C. (1995). I’ve Got The Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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